NOT THE ENTIRE 100-km stretch, the minimum requirement for one to register as a peregrino or pilgrim (200 km if one is on bike or horse).
Our Spanish hosts merely wanted us to get a feel of the centuries-old Camino de Santiago tradition, a central part of the history of Spain and European Christendom. So we copped out at 5 km--still about three hours’ walking from Melite to Boente, along the famed French Way (Camino Frances) that usually starts from the Pyrenees and takes about three to four months to complete by foot, before exhausted but gratified pilgrims can finally glimpse the spires of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela at the heart of the medieval town.
Last year was a watershed year for Santiago, the most visited destination in Galicia, in northern Spain. For the first time in centuries of ceaseless traffic to this holy site, there were more foreign pilgrims than Spanish: The ratio was 58-42 percent, said our guide.
Of some six million tourists, about 180,000 had come as declared pilgrims to the age-old cult of St. James the Apostle. His remains, it is believed, are kept in a crypt under the altar of the massive cathedral shrine that bears his name. Next year, a Jubilee Year, that number is expected to reach 250,000.
Majority of visitors still come for religious purposes. A pilgrimage to Santiago, the third most important site in Christianity after Rome and Jerusalem, gains one plenary indulgences.
But many now also come for cultural reasons. The Santiago Apostol mission, after all, dates back to some 1,200 years. Unesco has declared the town a World Heritage site, and the pilgrimage route itself is considered a European cultural treasure.
Pilgrims may come from anywhere in the world, as long as they end up in Santiago. People traditionally take to the road starting April, to make it in time for the feast of St. James on July 25.
Whichever ancient European route they take, they can make stops at numerous refugios (inns) along the way for rest, nourishment and the all-important sello (stamp) on a “passport” they need to present once they reach Santiago. With these stamps, the Church will issue a compostela--a document in Latin in use since the Middle Ages--certifying to the pilgrim status of the visitors.
Because walking on foot can be exhausting, some young pilgrims have become creative. Recently, said our guide Manuel, two kids skated all the way from Navarre, Spain, and reached Santiago in nine days.
Our own 5-km hike took us through dirt roads, hamlets, brooks, sparsely populated farms--the backwoods of the city. Road signs etched with the scallop, a central image in the Santiago Apostol iconography, pointed the way.
Many pilgrim roads have remained unpaved and distinct from urban arteries. Deliberately so, explained Manuel, so that the journey’s authentic character is preserved and not homogenized for modern touristy purposes.
Is it safe to walk along these unlighted rural areas? Yes, though no one really treks at night--“except some crazy Germans who strap on helmets with lights and try to find their way in the dark!” he said, chuckling.
Pilgrims taking the Camino Frances will inevitably find their way to a landmark stop--Monte do Gozo, or Mount of Joy, a promontory outside the city which offers the first view of Santiago and the cathedral towers. Tradition says the first pilgrim to glimpse the spires will then lead the others in joyous song.
From here, it’s only a couple more hours of walking to reach Ground Zero of their quest--the 17th-century cathedral whose oldest parts date back to 1075, and the expansive courtyard in front of it, called Plaza de Obradoido. If they still have the energy for it--and 10 euros--pilgrims can climb the cathedral roof for a breathtaking view of the landscape they had just crossed.
Facing the church is another historic building, now the town hall adorned with four flags representing Santiago, Spain, Galicia and the European Union.
On one side of it is the rectorado, in olden times a dormitory for students of the town’s university; and, on the other, a 16th-century hospital for pilgrims, now converted into a five-star hotel. Pilgrims staggering into the plaza can still get a hot meal from the hotel.
We didn’t reach the church square by foot. By 12 noon, hot and famished (lunch in Spain is at 2 p.m.), we ducked into a bar, got samples of the Camino stamp on tissue paper, and rode the van home. Never mind the pilgrim tag; we’d take plain “tourists” for now.
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PLUS: An abandoned house along the pilgrim route. Note the “Animo La Salle” graffiti on the wall.